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WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY v. ATTORNEY GENERAL COMMONWEALTH MASSACHUSETTS

decided: March 19, 1888.

WESTERN UNION TELEGRAPH COMPANY
v.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS.

Author: Miller

[ 125 U.S. Page 545]

 MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a writ of error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts.

The action was commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, sitting in equity, by an information on behalf of the Commonwealth, by its Attorney General, at the relation of the treasurer thereof, Alanson W. Beard. It was afterwards removed, upon motion of the defendant, the Western Union Telegraph Company, into the Circuit Court of the United States. The object of the information was to enforce the collection of a tax levied by the proper authorities of the State upon the telegraph company, and to enjoin it from the further operation of its telegraph lines within the territorial limits of the Commonwealth until that tax was paid.

The defendant company is a corporation organized under the laws of the State of New York, having its capital stock divided into shares. The tax assessed by the treasurer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was based upon an estimate of $750,952 as the taxable value of the shares of the corporation apportioned to that State, the rate of taxation having

[ 125 U.S. Page 546]

     been determined for that year, 1885, at $14.14 for and upon each $1000 of valuation. The mode by which this taxable valuation was arrived at was this: The treasurer ascertained from the officers of the telegraph company that the valuation of its entire capital stock was $47,500,000, from which were deducted the credits proper to be allowed in determining the assessable value, leaving $38,713,924 as the total valuation of said stock liable to taxation. It was then ascertained that the total number of miles of line of said corporation in all the States and Territories of this country was 146,052.60, of which 143,219.55 were without the limits of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, leaving 2833.05 miles within its boundaries. Taking these figures, the treasurer of the State assessed the value of that portion of the capital stock of this company which, under this calculation, would fall within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at the sum of $750,952. The amount thus arrived at, at the rate of $14.14 upon each $1000 of valuation, produced the sum of $10,618.46 as the amount of the tax claimed to be due and payable to the treasurer of said Commonwealth by that corporation. This sum was demanded of the telegraph company, but it refused to pay the same.

The answer of the defendant corporation set up that of its 2833.05 miles of line within the State of Massachusetts more than 2334.55 miles were over, under, or across post-roads, made such by the United States, leaving only 498.50 miles not over or along such post-roads, on which the company offered to pay the proportion of the tax assessed according to mileage by the state authorities.

The main ground on which the telegraph company resisted the payment of the tax alleged to be due, and on which probably the case was removed from the state court into the Circuit Court of the United States, is that it is a violation of the rights conferred on the company by the act of July 24, 1866, now Title LXV, §§ 5263 to 5269 of the Revised Statutes. The defendant alleges that it had accepted the provisions of that law, and filed a notification of such acceptance with the Postmaster General of the United States June 8, 1867. The argument is, therefore, that by virtue of § 5263 the company has a

[ 125 U.S. Page 547]

     right to exercise its functions of telegraphing over so much of its lines as is connected with the military and post-roads of the United States which have been declared to be such by law without being subject to taxation therefor by the state authorities. That section reads as follows:

"SEC. 5263. Any telegraph company now organized, or which may hereafter be organized under the laws of any State, shall have the right to construct, maintain, and operate lines of telegraph through and over any portion of the public domain of the United States, over and along any of the military or post-roads of the United States which have been or may hereafter be declared such by law, and over, under, or across the navigable streams or waters of the United States; but such lines of telegraph shall be so constructed and maintained as not to obstruct the navigation of such streams and waters, or interfere with the ordinary travel on such military or post-roads."

It is urged that this section, upon its acceptance by this corporation or any of like character, confers a right to do the business of telegraphing which is transacted over the lines so constructed over or along such post-roads, without liability to taxation by the State. The argument is very much pressed that it is a tax upon the franchise of the company, which franchise being derived from the United States by virtue of the statute above recited cannot be taxed by a State, and counsel for appellant occasionally speak of the tax authorized by the law of Massachusetts upon this as well as all other corporations doing business within its territory, whether organized under its laws or not, as a tax upon their franchises. But by whatever name it may be called, as described in the laws of Massachusetts, it is essentially an excise upon the capital of the corporation. The laws of that Commonwealth attempt to ascertain the just amount which any corporation engaged in business within its limits shall pay as a contribution to the support of its government upon the amount and value of the capital so employed by it therein.

The telegraph company, which is the defendant here, derived its franchise to be a corporation and to exercise the function

[ 125 U.S. Page 548]

     of telegraphing from the State of New York. It owes its existence, its capacity to contract, its right to sue and be sued, and to exercise the business of telegraphy, to the laws of the State under which it is organized. But the privilege of running the lines of its wires "through and over any portion of the military or post-roads of the United States, . . . and over, under, or across the navigable streams or waters of the United States," is granted to it by the act of Congress. This, however, is merely a permissive statute, and there is no expression in it which implies that this permission to extend its lines along roads not built or owned by the United States, or over and under navigable streams, or over bridges not built or owned by the Federal government, carries with it any exemption from the ordinary burdens of taxation.

While the State could not interfere by any specific statute to prevent a corporation from placing its lines along these post-roads, or stop the use of them after they were placed there, nevertheless the company receiving the benefit of the laws of the State for the protection of its property and its rights is liable to be taxed upon its real or personal property as any other person would be. It never could have been intended by the Congress of the United States, in conferring upon a corporation of one State the authority to enter the territory of any other State and erect its poles and lines therein, to establish the proposition that such a company owed no obedience to the laws of the State into which it thus entered, and was under no obligation to pay its fair proportion of the taxes necessary to its support.

In the case of Telegraph Company v. Texas, 105 U.S. 460, this question was very fully considered, and while a tax imposed upon every telegram passing over its lines, whether entirely within the State or coming from without its limits, or going from the State out of it, was held to be void so far as related to messages passing through more than one State, as an interference with or a regulation of commerce and with the act of ...


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